I had a conversation yesterday that reminded me of something I hadn’t written about. Going through grad school I was pretty sure that I would end up planting a church or just teaching Quaker theology or a little of both. The thought of working in an established congregation wasn’t on my list of possibilities, I’d written that off a long time ago. My reasoning went: it would be much better to start my own thing from the bottom up as surely the would Spirit led me to do. (One part of the problem is that so many 31 year men from seminary want to do this and noticing that I started question my motives.) Then I had a class with Mark Lau Branson who (in that very pacifist way) beat into us the importance and treasure of an established congregation.
For Branson, God had also planted that church, and called it to that place for a reason – whether 50 years or 150 years ago – and who are we to assume God is done with that people and place? The suggestion is quite simply: shouldn’t most of our (our as in young seminary students of every gender and ethnicity) energy be going into these congregations and walking alongside them in a way that lives out a belief in that reality? Not only are they good places to learn and grow, but they are often far more stable, there are already people there who are rooted in their faith, and there are already plenty of things going on to work with. It offers an accountability structure and a path that won’t just turn into someone’s little brain-child. In my estimation, established congregations have a far better chance of sustaining the loss of their leader than one born out of the leaders’ ideas and persona. There is a security in knowing that this church isn’t going anywhere even when I do make mistakes. (I should be careful to remind people that I have nothing against church plants and house churches, etc. Many of my good friends lead them and there is certainly a place for them I have no doubt God calls people to do this, but I am using strong language because I am pushing in the opposite direction to a usual course of events that I fear often go unquestioned). Branson cast hope on a despairing subject for me and actually helped me see that this view was far closer to the theology I believed elsewhere (things about the importance of tradition, culture, innovation, etc.). I wanted to be able to join with God where he was already at work and see how we could be of used in a setting like this. This was the process that set me back on a course of pastoral ministry following the call of Christ in the work of companionship, building and rebuilding, praying and petitioning for, and dreaming with others who have been faithful to their congregation. I’m glad I did.